Tag Archives: wrongful death

2002 – Reviving the Cullen Davis Case

In August of 1976, a lone gunman dressed in black entered the mansion owned by millionaire oilman T. Cullen Davis and shot four people, including Davis’ estranged wife Priscilla, who had legal possession of the home at the time, according to the terms of their pending divorce proceedings.  Two people survived the shootings, but Priscilla’ daughter, Andrea Willborn, and her boyfriend, Stan Farr, did not.

Cullen Davis, who was then said to be worth approximately $400 million, was indicted for the murders.  The next year, after a change of venue moved the case to Amarillo, Texas, Davis, at the time reported to be the “the richest man to stand trial on murder charges,” was acquitted of murder in one of the most notorious and globally-televised events of the decade. (Davis was also later acquitted of murder-for-hire charges in a separate case where it was alleged that he attempted to arrange for the presiding judge of his divorce action to meet an untimely and violent death as well.)

Davis was never tried in Farr’s death, but in 1990, he agreed to settle the wrongful death civil action which had been filed on behalf of Farr’s two teenage children.  In the settlement agreement, Davis agreed to pay the children $250,000.  The agreed judgment based on the settlement was entered on February 15, 1990, but the settlement was amended three years later to include a provision requiring Davis to pay the balance of the judgment by 1997.  The judgment was never paid.

On September 27, 2002, the children, who were by this time adults, filed a suit to recover the debt in the 352nd District Court, Judge Bonnie Sudderth presiding.  Davis responded by claiming that the statute of limitations barred the children’s claims against him – that he no longer legally owed the judgment because the children had waited too long to collect it.

Davis argued that the original judgment had become “dormant” on February 14, 2000 (ten years after the original judgment was signed) because the children had not sought a writ of execution of the judgment during the 10-year period of time. Texas law provides that judgments become dormant after 10 years if no writ of execution is issued.

However, Texas law also provides that a dormant judgment may be “revived” by filing a lawsuit on the debt if not brought later than the second anniversary of the date the judgment becomes dormant.  The problem, Davis pointed out, was that the children waited two years and seven months to bring the debt action, and, therefore, he contended, the debt was no longer owed.

The Farr children sought summary judgment, asking Judge Sudderth to rule that their claims were not time-barred, since they were both minors at the time the settlement was entered into.   Texas law stops the clock on limitations during a child’s minority years, if they are under the age of 18 at the time a cause of action accrues.

Judge Bonnie Sudderth agreed with the Farr children that their claims against Davis were not time-barred.  The effect of Judge Sudderth’s ruling affirmed that Davis still owed the Farr children $125,000 each, plus interest as provided by law.

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1997 – Wrongful Death Involving Cell Phone Distraction

This case was a fairly high profile one because it was one of the earliest cases which highlighted the dangers of cell phone useage while driving.  Added to what would become a recipe for disaster was the fact that the driver who caused the collision was a teenager. 

In January, 1996, a 16 year-old girl whose parents were on a ski trip in Colorado, decided to take her parent’s company van out for a drive, even though she had been forbidden to do so.  She brought a cell phone along with her, and during the excursion, it fell onto the floorboard of the van.  Along the way, the cell phone rang, which distracted the teenager from her driving duties while she reached for the ringing cell phone.

During the few seconds that her eyes were taken off the roadway to retrieve the cell phone, the van veered across the center line of the highway, striking head-on a small compact car which was traveling in the opposite direction.  In the other car was a family of four – father and mother in the front seat, young daughter and son in the back.  The impact resulted in the death of the 3 year-old boy and serious brain damage to the father, resulting in his total and permanent disability.  The mother and daughter were also injured, but survived without permanent physical injuries.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed was almost immediately in the 352nd District Court, seeking damages against both the teenager individually and against the teen’s parents.  Besides allegations of common law negligence, the plaintiffs sued under multiple other theories, including negligent entrustment, negligence per se and a claim that the vehicle itself constituted an attractive nuisance for a teenager whose parents were out of town.  With regard to their negligence action, plaintiffs complained that the teen’s parents had failed to properly instruct her on how to safely operate a mobile phone while simultaneously driving a vehicle.

During the pretrial of the case, the plaintiffs asked Judge Sudderth to recognize a new cause of action in the law – a cause of action for negligent entrustment of a cell phone.  Plaintiffs argued that the law recognizes a cause of action for negligent entrustment of chattel (tangible personal property – the cell phone itself).  Plaintiffs argued that such a cause of action exists in the common law if the person supplying the chattel has reason to know it is likely to be used in a manner involving an unreasonable risk of harm.  Plaintiffs argued that the entrustment of a cell phone to a teenager driver under these circumstances was similar to the entrustment of a firearm to a minor child, which had already been recognized in Texas jurisprudence as a basis for liability under the theory of negligent entrustment of chattel.  Judge Sudderth rejected this argument, declining to recognize a new cause of action in Texas law for negligent entrustment of a cell phone.

The plaintiffs also sought damages under the theory of negligence per se, since the teenager was also operating the vehicle with an expired driver’s license at the time of the collision.  Judge Sudderth also declined to apply the law of negligence per se in this case, rejecting plaintiff’s contention that an expired driver’s license was tantamount to driving without a license.  In her ruling, Judge Sudderth drew a distinction between driving under an expired license and driving without ever having been licensed at all.  Causing a collision or reckless driving, Judge Sudderth ruled, would be a direct result of being an unlicensed driver; hence, the law of negligence per se would apply.  However, Judge Sudderth held the mere fact that a valid license had been permitted to expire would have no direct causative relationship with the quality of a driver’s skills or abilities behind the wheel.  Therefore, Judge Sudderth ruled that under the facts of this case driving under an expired license, while a violation of the law, would not invoke the doctrine of negligence per se.

The case went to the jury on the theory of negligence as to the teenager and negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle as to the teen’s parents.  In a 10-2 verdict, the jury imposed liability on the driver, but not her parents.  Damages were awarded against the teenager in the amount of $6.9 million.  Neither the verdict, nor Judge Sudderth’s pretrial legal rulings, were appealed.

The tragic and fatal accident that gave rise to this lawsuit took place in January 1996.  Judge Bonnie Sudderth heard many news accounts of this accident while she was campaiging for the position of judge of the 352nd District Court.  She won that election two months later and by the time she took office, the lawsuit had already been filed and randomly assigned to the 352nd District Court.  The case went to trial one year later and was the first trial that garnered media attention during Judge Sudderth’s tenure on the district court bench.  It was notable because access to cell phones, cell phone technology and research regarding cell phone useage while driving was still in its infancy during this era.

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1999 – Parvin vs. Dean: Lawsuit for Death of Unborn Child

Judge Bonnie Sudderth granted summary judgment in favor of parents who suffered the death of their unborn child as the result of a car accident, on the following facts:  The mother of the child was struck by another vehicle while driving through an intersection.  The other driver stipulated that he was negligent in causing the collision and the woman was not at fault. 

Immediately after the collision, the woman, who was 9-months pregnant at the time, felt her baby kicking in the womb.  Although her water did not break and she had no bleeding, an ambulance took her from the accident scene to a hospital as a precautionary measure.  Her unborn child died in the womb en route to the hospital. 

The next day, knowing that her child was no longer alive and with her husband by her side, she endured more than nine hours of labor to deliver her stillborn daughter.  The undisputed medical evidence proved that the child was fully developed, viable and could have lived outside the womb immediately before the collision, she had the capacity to cry at the time of the collision, she was alive at the time of the collision but survived only for a short period of time thereafter, and, finally, that the collision was the cause of the child’s death.

 The law at the time this case was filed in the 352nd District Cout was that while Texas parents could recover for the wrongful death of a child who died only moments after birth, parents could not sue for the wrongful death for a child who was not born alive.  The law also provided that while the mother could recover for her own mental anguish due to the death of her daughter, the father could not recover for his mental anguish.

Judge Sudderth granted summary judgment, ruling that a viable unborn child was an “individual” within the scope of the Wrongful Death Act, and should not be excluded under the statute because she was not born alive.  Judge Sudderth also ruled that the father was entitled to the same rights as a mother to recover mental anguish damages for the loss of his child.

Judge Sudderth’s decision was appealed to the Second Court of Appeals, who, sitting en banc, upheld Judge Sudderth’s ruling.  Justice Dixon Holman authored the opinion, which can be found at:  Parvin v. Dean, 7 S.W.3d 264 (Tex. App. – Ft  Worth 1999).  In a subsequent unrelated case, the Texas Supreme Court criticized the Parvin v. Dean decision, but shortly thereafter the Texas Legislature amended the statute to codify this result.

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Cases from the 352nd District Court

Welcome to the 352nd District Court.  The purpose of this website is to provide a history of the more interesting or notable cases from the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas.

A Brief History of the 352nd District Court:

The 352nd District Court is a district court which serves all citizens of Tarrant County, Texas. Since the 352nd District Court was established on September 1, 1984, only three judges have served in its history.

John G. Street, a Tarrant County civil trial lawyer, was elected to the 352nd District Court on November 16, 1984.  Judge Street was a Democrat who served in that position until December 31, 1988, having being defeated for re-election in the 1988 election by Republican Bruce Auld, a Tarrant County civil trial attorney.  On January 1, 1989, Judge Bruce Auld took the bench, where he served until December of 1995.  Judge Auld resigned due to illness and died a short time thereafter.  Judge Bonnie Sudderth, the former Chief Judge of the Fort Worth Muncipal Court, ran in a contested Republican primary for election to the 352nd District Court bench, winning the seat for a term that would commence on January 1, 1997.  However, because the bench was vacant at the time of her primary election, then-Governor George W. Bush appointed her to fill the vacancy for the remainder of 1996.  (She had no opponent in the general election of November, 1996.)  Judge Sudderth has been re-elected three times to the 352nd District Court and is now serving her fourth term in office.  As such, Judge Sudderth is the longest-serving judge of the 352nd District Court.

Although the 352nd District Court has general jurisdiction to hear all matters properly filed in a district-level court – civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases – in practice, the court hears only civil cases. When the Texas Legislature created the 352nd District Court, it directed that this court would give preference to civil cases; therefore, pursuant to Section 24.498 of the Texas Government Code, all cases which are currently assigned to the 352nd District Court involve civil disputes.

The 352nd District Court is a trial court. Traditional notions of a “trial” usually center around the concept of a jury of 12 citizens serving as the ultimate arbiter of the case. However, most cases in the 352nd District Court are either “tried to the bench” (meaning that all matters of law and fact are presented to the judge for determination) or adjudicated by the judge as a result of a pre-trial motion. Jury trials in civil district court cases are rare today, the vast majority of cases being resolved in some manner other than a full jury trial on the merits.

Civil cases are varied and often complex, involving multiple parties and multiple legal issues in dispute. Among the many different types of cases which are filed in the 352nd District Court are cases involving:

Business entities
Class actions
Commercial litigation
Contracts
Debt collection
Employment and discrimination
Foreclosures
Insurance
Intellectual property
Medical and other professional malpractice
Oil and gas
Partnership dissolutions
Personal injury
Premises security
Property taxes
Real estate ownership and title
Worker’s compensation appeals
Wrongful death and survivorship

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